May 13, 2011 10:40AM

Righting the Balance

In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment cut an important tie in the Constitution between state legislatures and the Congress. In the original Constitution, states were empowered to choose the senators who would represent them in Congress. The result? Senators had an allegiance to the state government as much as the people of the state they represented.

Why does this matter? Well, today—with direct, popular election of senators—there isn’t much of anyone looking after state legislatures in Congress. Accordingly, the federal government continually tries to turn states into administrative outposts of the federal government rather than respecting them as the independent political powers they’re supposed to be.

In program after program, remote federal officials set policy and raise taxes, then require states to administer the programs. When things go a‐​mess, people don’t know whether it’s the federal government or the state government they need to talk to. Political accountability suffers, contributing to the big morass of government in the United States today.

Now, it wasn’t all sweetness and light before the Seventeenth Amendment rejiggered our governmental system, but it isn’t sweetness and light now either.

So yesterday, constitutional amendments were introduced in both the House and Senate to right the balance. House Joint Resolution 62 and Senate Joint Resolution 12 would propose an amendment to the Constitution giving states the right to repeal federal laws and regulations. Under the amendments, when two‐​thirds of the states ratify repeal of a federal mandate, it would come off the books.

The idea is to again right the balance between the states and the federal government. Most of its effect would be upstream: the Congress would be a lot more circumspect, knowing that the states could reject its laws if they went too far. But occasionally states would get a head of steam and lop out a federal law that they find disagreeable. The federal legislature would have to be a little more humble.

The federal government and its officials are pretty remote from the people compared to state legislators. Some way to right the balance would be good, whether it’s this specific idea, repeal of the Seventeeth Amendment, or some other. The “Madison Amendment” would work toward the same end by empowering states to propose constitutional amendments the way the Congress now does.

In this modern era of national transportation, high‐​speed communications, and global markets, many people believe that it’s natural for regulation to gravitate to the national level (often not considering that the logical end is global regulation). But technological change has not altered the rule that government closer to the people—or self‐​rule by the people themselves—is best. We pay a high price every day in this country for having cut a tendon in the constitutional structure with the Seventeenth Amendment and direct election of senators. It’s good to see efforts out there to right this balance.